1. How much does the market drive what style of wine you make?
We don't go out and do consumer panels. We just make what we think is best within that and hope shoppers agree. One of the great things about working with Church Road is they place absolute faith in the winemaking team to steer their style. Fortunately Hawkes Bay has the ability to produce the styles that I really enjoy drinking.
2. What are your favourite styles of wine?
The classic cool-climate styles from the old world. Bordeaux reds, syrahs and fuller-bodied chardonnays. Really complex, dense wines that age well. You can benchmark Hawkes Bay wines with the best in the world in those varieties. That's hugely due to its unique environment.
3. What's unique about Hawkes Bay?
It's the combination of climate and soils. The relatively cool European-style climate produces much more classically proportioned wines which retain more of the freshness and flavour of the grape. In warmer climates like California or Australia the varietal characters get a bit blurred and the wines become a bit porty and heavy and jammy. We've also got very stony, free-draining soils. Grape vines are basically weeds so you have to treat them mean and keep them thirsty to force them to switch from a vegetative cycle to a reproductive cycle.
4. Is there much variety within the region?
Yes, the climate and soil can vary greatly, even 20km down the road. When I got to Hawkes Bay in 1995 every vineyard was a fruit salad of varieties. Now you see a lot more specialisation. The hot stony soils of Bridge Pa Triangle and Gimblett Gravels are dominated by red varieties. The Tuki Tuki Valley which gets the cool sea breeze during the afternoon grows good chardonnay and the high country spots further inland where it gets colder at night are great for sav and pinot gris.
5. Do wine makers share their secrets?
Wine is very regionally driven so the better the reputation of Hawkes Bay wines, the greater demand for all wines in the region. So lifting the overall quality is in all our interests. We have a syrah industry workshop where all the producers share spec sheets which basically explain how we make it. It's also important to establish the reputation of a variety. Marlborough made sauvignon blanc an international superstar and Chile probably sells a lot more sav as a result.
6. Did you grow up in a wine-drinking household?
I did, which was relatively unusual back in those days. Wine was seen as a woman's drink in a beer-drinking culture. Dad was probably the only painter-decorator in Hamilton who preferred wine to beer. Mum was a midwife. They'd come from the UK. Wine was always served with dinner and we'd be allowed the odd sip on special occasions. When I was 18 I bought a book about New Zealand wines for my Dad's birthday, which he never read, but it inspired me to jump on a bus to Hawkes Bay with my future wife to do the wine trails. The drinking age was 20 back then but no one asked our ages and I was able to send home six cases of wine.
7. Did you have a lightbulb moment with wine?
I did. It was the Elwin chardonnay from Ngatarawa winery. It was very textual and rich and flavoursome and quite obviously different to the garbage I'd been drinking at university. Right then and there I just thought: "I want to know how to make this." Much to my parents' horror I threw in my half-finished accounting degree and moved down to Hawkes Bay to do a degree in winemaking at the Eastern Institute of Technology.
8. How did you get your break in a highly competitive industry?
While I was studying, a guy from Church Road came to EIT looking for summer workers. Ten of us turned up to meet him and everyone but me walked out when they heard it was going to be hard, manual labour on minimum pay. That summer I worked the vineyard and the cellar door. The second summer they trusted me with a tractor and the third I was asked to work a "vintage", where the winery runs 24/7 harvesting all the grapes.
9. Did you have a mentor?
Yes, Church Road's senior winemaker Tony Pritchard. He'd transformed the industry back in 1991 when most of our winemaking expertise came from Australian universities which were very technically focused. They'd analyse a wine in the lab and adjust it based on the numbers. Church Road invited experts from Bordeaux who took an approach based purely on taste. That was scary because it was abandoning science and trusting the palette. That was a real battle for Tony but now it's the widely accepted approach.
10. What are the most important attributes of a wine? Flavour, aroma or texture?
Texture. The primary focus of everything we do at Church Road is around "mouth-feel", getting a nice fullness, roundness and plushness. A lot of the things you do to enhance texture actually make the wines less fruity and more aromatically interesting, which to me is a real positive, but it's not everyone's focus.
11. Do you hope any of your three children will follow you into the wine industry?
I'd love them to. Two certainly seem to have the palette for it. My daughter's the most sensitive. We play this game where you're blindfolded and have to guess what something is based on taste or smell. When she was 13 I got every spice from the cupboard, pulled out herbs from the garden and she didn't get a single one wrong. Even tea leaves. I thought that would get her, but no. People have different levels of natural ability but it's something you can train as well.
12. What's the future for the New Zealand wine industry?
We can't compete with other countries on volume. Our future's in producing the best wines. I'd like to see some of Hawkes Bay's international accolades develop into greater demand. For example, the Gimblett Gravels district took its reds to compete against the best Bordeaux wines a couple of years ago and the top three wines were ours. Theirs retail for $1500 a bottle versus ours at $40 to $120 so if anything ours are undervalued.